Burma today ranks as one of the world’s most isolated and sanctioned nations — a situation unlikely to be changed by its ruling junta scheduling a May referendum on a draft constitution and facilitating U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s third visit in six months.
The referendum and planned 2010 national elections are part of a touted road map to democracy. But the iconic opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, may not be able to contest because the still-undisclosed, military-drawn constitution — in the making for 15 years — is likely to bar anyone who married a foreigner.
Burma is an important state. This is not a Bhutan or a Brunei but a country that boasts
the largest Indochina land area. It is a resource-rich nation that can become an economic powerhouse if it can remedy its poisoned politics and ethnic divides and dispel international sanctions. And it is a land bridge between South and Southeast Asia. Such is its vantage location that Burma forms the strategic nucleus for India, China and Southeast Asia.
The military has run Burma, once the world’s leading rice exporter, for 46 long years. Indeed, Burma’s present problems and impoverishment can be tracked back to the defining events of 1962, when General Ne Win deposed elected Prime Minister U Nu, one of the founders of the nonaligned movement.
The callous Ne Win, a devotee of Marx and Stalin, virtually sealed off Burma, banning most external trade and investment, nationalizing companies, halting foreign projects and tourism, and kicking out the Indian business community.
It was not until nearly three decades later that a new generation of military leaders, motivated by Deng Xiaoping’s modernization program in China, attempted to ease Burma’s international isolation through tentative economic reforms without loosening political controls. Such attempts came much after the military’s brutal suppression of the 1988 student-led protests that left several thousand dead or injured — a bloodbath that coincided with the numerology-devoted Ne Win’s announcement of retirement on the "most auspicious" day of Aug. 8, 1988 (8.8.88).
While Western aid cutoffs and other penal actions began no sooner than the Burmese junta refused to honor the outcome of the 1990 elections, won by the detained Suu Kyi’s party, Burma became a key target of U.S. sanctions policy only in the Bush years.
The new missionary zeal in the U.S. approach, reflected in the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act banning all imports from that country and several subsequent punitive executive orders, has occurred because of the White House president’s wife. Laura Bush’s Burma fixation has put the policy establishment in a bind: The more the United States seeks to punish the regime, the more it undercuts its ability to promote political reforms in Burma, and the more its actions threaten to disrupt the lives of ordinary Burmese.
As then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley told Congress in late 2003, many garment workers made jobless by U.S. sanctions "have entered the flourishing illegal sex and entertainment industries" in Burma or neighboring states.
While prohibiting new investment by American citizens or entities, Washington has protected the business interests of Chevron Corp., which acquired a stake in the Yadana natural-gas export project in Burma when it bought Unocal Corp. in 2005. Because Unocal’s investment in the project, in which France’s Total SA holds the biggest stake, predated the imposition of U.S. sanctions, Chevron has used a grandfather clause to stay put in Burma — one of the few large Western companies left there.
The junta, through its remarkable shortsightedness, has only aided Laura Bush’s activism. Its crackdown last September on monk-led protests — which, according to a U.N. special rapporteur’s report, left at least 31 dead — invited a new round of U.S.-inspired international sanctions. The regime not only continues to detain Suu Kyi, now 62, but also has isolated itself from the public by moving the national capital to remote Nay Pyi Taw, located between Rangoon and Mandalay.
The big losers have been Burma’s 58 million people, bearing the brunt of the sanctions, while the only winner is China, a friend of every pariah regime.
Democracy offers the only path to bringing enduring stability to diverse Burma. Genuine participatory processes are necessary to promote ethnic reconciliation in a country that has been at war with itself since its 1948 independence. While the ethnic Burmans, of Tibetan stock, constitute the majority, the non-Burman nationalities (including the Shan and the largely Christian Karen, the first to take up arms) make up one-third of the population.
The oversize Burmese military fancies itself as the builder of a united Burma. Given that ethnic warfare began no sooner than Japanese-trained General Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) persuaded the smaller nationalities to join the union, the military has used the threat of Balkanization to justify its hold on politics.
It trumpets its successes between the late 1980s and early 1990s in crushing a four-decade-long communist insurgency and concluding ceasefire agreements with other underground groups, with just a few outfits left in active resistance. The period since has been viewed by the military as a time to begin state-building, while to the opposition it has been an unending phase of political repression.
Given Burma’s potent mix of ethnicity, religion and culture, democracy can serve as a unifying and integrating force, as in India. After all, Burma cannot be indefinitely held together through brute might. But make no mistake: The seeds of democracy will not take root in a stunted economy, battered by widening Western sanctions.
The junta restored the traditional name Myanmar for nationalistic reasons as a break from the colonial past. But Myanmar, meaning the Burman land, carries an ethnic connotation, and Suu Kyi’s party continues to use the name Burma. A name change ought to have the imprimatur of an elected government citing a national consensus in favor.
Sanctions have sent Burmese society into a downward spiral of poverty and discontent while strengthening the military’s political grip. Today, under the cumulative weight of sanctions, Burma has come full circle: Its 74-year-old senior general, the ailing and delusional Than Shwe, an astrology aficionado, has amassed powers to run a virtual one-man dictatorship in Ne Win-style.
Burma illustrates that sanctions can hurt those they are supposed to protect, especially when they are enforced for long and shut out engagement.
Such is Laura Bush’s ability not only to influence U.S. policy but also to orchestrate an international campaign in which she announced Dec. 10 that "India, one of Burma’s closest trading partners, has stopped selling arms to the junta."
New Delhi has neither confirmed or denied that. Who can contradict a first lady whose fury on Burma reputedly flows from a meeting with a Karen rape victim and information from a relative with an erstwhile connection to that country?
If the Burmese are to win political freedoms, they need to be first freed from sanctions that rob them of jobs, cripple their economic well-being and retard civil-society development. It is a growing civil society that usually sounds the death knell of a dictatorship.
Years of sanctions have left Burma bereft of an entrepreneurial class but saddled with the military as the only functioning institution — to the extent that the spokesperson for Suu Kyi’s party admits the military will have an important role to play in any future government.
To avert looming humanitarian catastrophes, the same international standard applicable to autocratic, no-less-ruthless regimes in next-door China, Bangladesh and Laos should apply to Burma — engage, don’t isolate.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."